With COP26taking place in Glasgow, the spotlight has once again been shone on how 5G technologies and smart factories have a role to play in helping the manufacturing industry reduce the environmental impact of its operations.

But while talk of smart factories, Industry 4.0 and the Industrial Internet of Things have been common for decades, many manufacturers - particularly those further down the supply chain - have not yet taken steps to make sure they are ready to take advantage of the opportunities 5G presents.

The UK’s first live 5G ‘smart factory’ trials took place at the Worcestershire 5G Testbed through 2018-2020. Working with Worcester Bosch, Yamakazi Mazak and defence company QinetiQ, among others, the trials tested use-cases for 5G technologies, covering everything from changes to factory floor production processes to real-time analysis and remote machine operation.

Worcester Bosch tested 5G for improved factory output, exploring preventative maintenance using IoT sensors and data analytics to predict failure; QinetiQ looked at designing security into 5G networks and applications; Yamakazi Mazak explored how technology could be used to troubleshoot applications, allowing seniors engineer to remote guide onsite engineers through remote machine maintenance.

Elsewhere, SME aerospace manufacturer AE Aerospace has been developing its ‘glass factory’ concept, installing a private 5G network to help plan production, collecting and monitoring performance data in real time to optimise production and creating a new ‘capacity availability’ model; exploring how sensors can be used to locate and ensure gauges are correctly calibrated; and using AI to improve quality and inspection processes.

These use-cases all contributed to the DCMS 5G Testbed and Trials (5GTT) programme, which identified that 5G networks could enable productivity savings of at least 2% in manufacturing - the equivalent of £2.6bn when extrapolated across the whole of the UK - and that is a conservative estimate.

As the team behind the installation of the first private 5G network at a UK manufacturer, we’ve seen first-hand the challenges and benefits of setting up a smart factory environment, from the perspective of both manufacturing businesses and also technology providers. That is why we created nexGworx - our Testbed as a Service programme, supported by technology partner BT -to provide a safe and accessible platform for UK industry to develop and test next generation technology.

While some individual use cases require 5G networks on their own merit, in most cases there isn’t one killer application or use case that will drive 5G adoption. More likely, the installation of private 5G networks will be best justified where several applications operating together require the benefits that 5G offers. These benefits range from increased bandwidth capacity, faster download times, reduced latency and greater ability to connect multiple devices in a flexible environment.

On the shopfloor, this might translate into the ability to monitor and adapt production schedules in real time, storing and processing highly-detailed inspection images for quality inspections carried out by artificial intelligence or locating tools and moving them around the factory on a just-in-time basis.

Many use cases will arise from existing continuous improvement programmes and, as such, I4.0 readiness may well be led by a combination of CI, operational and R&D teams. To adapt a sporting analogy - it’s the accumulation of marginal gains, supported by 5G networks, that are likely todeliver the greatest returns. For example, productivity gains from improvements in process, quality control, health and safety, customer experience and a greener agenda are all achievable and can be amplified by collaborating between project teams, in-house departments, manufacturing sites and even supply chain businesses and customers.

Crucially, with greater collaboration comes security risks and this is where access to public and private 5G testbeds comes into its own - allowing security features such as multi-site network access control, strong mutual authentication and encryption to be trialled, tested and built into programmes from the off, ensuring manufacturers can benefit from IIOT in a cyber safe environment and stay at the forefront of security developments through access to security experts and products, such as those developed by security specialists QinetiQ and our partner BT.

The potential of 5G to power smart, connected manufacturing is exciting but knowing where to start can be overwhelming, not least when juggling the day-to-day challenges of running daily operations. However, the eco-system is developing quickly. Governments across Europe are investing in networks and trials to drive adoption within their own manufacturing sectors and ensure they are well placed to reap the benefits offered by Industry 4.0. With a variety of funding streams now coming online too, there has never been a better time to connect with 5G experts and identify the right IIoT opportunity for your business.